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Comparative Insights on Uprisings and Protests

Panel V-31, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Dr. Nahid Siamdoust -- Presenter
  • Dr. Sareh Afshar -- Presenter
  • Dr. Behzad Borhan -- Chair
  • Majd Abuamer -- Presenter
  • John Miller -- Presenter
  • Dr. Payam Yousefi -- Presenter
  • Majd Abuamer
    The post-Arab uprisings period has been marked by a sense of melancholia, disillusionment, and disappointment in many countries in the region. The uprisings initially gave rise to hope and optimism for change and reform, but the failure to bring about significant political transformation has left many people feeling frustrated and disheartened. Many of the regimes that were targeted by the uprisings have managed to hold onto power or to reassert control over their countries. The region has also witnessed a resurgence of authoritarianism, with many governments cracking down on dissent and limiting civil liberties and political freedoms. Further, the ongoing conflicts in some countries have led to immense human suffering and displacement. This has contributed to the emergence of a dilemma of nihilism, one that could be political or apolitical. While political nihilism rejects the legitimacy and authority of all political systems and institutions, apolitical nihilism, on the other hand, rejects not just political systems and institutions, but the very idea of politics itself. While political nihilists may protest or rebel against the status quo, others may view it as a more practical approach to achieving change. However, it is important to note that political nihilism is not a monolithic or unified movement in the Arab world, and there is a wide range of perspectives and approaches among those who embrace it. In Syria, some individuals and groups have embraced nihilistic ideologies such as jihadism or anarchism as a means of rejecting the existing political system and advocating for radical change. Others simply called for destructing the system without attempts to engage in reform efforts, suggest an alternative, or produce new political elites. This paper seeks to understand the transformations of the meaning of the political in Arab countries by conceptualizing (a)political nihilism in the post Arab uprisings context through analyzing the slogans raised by the protestors in the first wave of the Arab uprisings (2010-2011) in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, as well as those chaunted in the second wave (2018-2021) in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq. The paper will also draw on the data provided by the Arab Opinion Index survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies through examining Arab public opinion toward the trust in political institutions, opportunities ahead of changing the status quo, and their views on the political situation in their countries.
  • Dr. Sareh Afshar
    Abstract “… knowledge is not made understanding, it is made for cutting.” (Michel Foucault, 1984) “Within the interdependence of mutual (non-dominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being.” (Audre Lord, 1979) From Saqqez to Brooklyn, Santiago to Berlin, the mournful yet militant gesture of scissor-yielding women* lopping off locks of their own hair has wandered globally in the aftermath of the criminal killing of the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Jina (Mahsa) Amini. Revived on the gravesites of numerous Iranian protestors killed in the women*-led protests that engulfed Iran, this supposedly traditional mourning rite has since been repeated in spaces ranging from domestic town squares to street rallies organized abroad by Iran’s diaspora population, to viral social media celebrity compilations, to concerts and awards ceremonies worldwide, and even to the EU Parliament floor. To some, the message carried by cutting seems straightforward: one of solidarity with Iranian women*. If this viral action does in fact bring about solidarity, what does this solidarity do? Does it help center non-normative bodies and desires on a global scale, which is arguably at the root of this revolutionary, leaderless uprising’s core slogan, “Woman*, Life, Liberty”? Can it help us ascertain obscure or occluded genealogies of feminist, queer, and liberationist thought and practice? (How) Do the anti-colonial, anti-capitalist struggles of the Global South labor, gender, and justice movements make room for the differences of Iranian women* and queer people beyond their gender/sexuality? Or is this solidarity the self-aggrandization of networks of neoliberal feminism coupled with celebrity activism, and merely posturing as such? And if this is the case, how can models of retro-speculation be leveraged to help preserve this leaderless movement, prevent its cooptation, and use it to continue imagining the inhabitable futures it promised? By employing José Muñoz’s (2009) methodology of associative thinking that leads to the construction of new and random archives, this paper attends to these questions by putting this gesture in conversation with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) to explore how cutting—when read as an act concerned with the disruption of memory and the obsolescence of history—can help us cut down on some of the discontents that continue to weigh transnational feminist and queer solidarities down.
  • Dr. Payam Yousefi
    Throughout the diaspora in political rallies and on social media, women and men sing to the beat of the drum “I am fed up with your religion /curses upon your creed/ the calluses upon your foreheads / and your hearts of stone.” Surprisingly, the poetry and melody of this chant is a reappropriation of a sineh-zani from Yazd, Iran during the month of Muharram in 2013. To this day this and other sineh-zanis are widely reshared as forms of protest on Iranian online semi-publics. Through the analysis of recently televised performances of sineh-zani (2017-2022), and the reappropriations of them on social media, I expand on Hamid Dabashi’s notion of Shi’ism as a religion of protest to further examine the paradox of conformity and dissent inherent in sineh-zani performance within Iran today. I build on previous scholarship regarding the Karbala-paradigm (Fischer 2010) to examine how the subversive power within sineh-zani paradoxically fosters sentiments of dissent from theocracy within Iran and across the diaspora today. This work brings together ethnographic fieldwork in Iran (2019-2022) and digital ethnography (2017-2023) with music analysis to examine: (1) how these collective musical expressions harbor an elusive subversive power, and (2) how the reappropriated sentiments from protest-sineh-zanis foster cultural intimacy (Herzfeld 2016) and solidarity across diverse sectors of society. My analysis of sineh-zani, first, establishes this ritual’s role in engendering a collective identity defined by its opposition to tyranny. Secondly, through the poetic analysis of viral online videos of sineh-zani, I show how each ritual’s enactment both accommodates and challenges the polity through its opposition to historic accounts of oppression. Lastly, I locate sineh-zani as a performative space that regenerates historical moments of injustice while simultaneously voicing indiscriminate objections to contemporary tyranny. In this transformative poetic space, orators skillfully manipulate poetic conventions of ritual to rhetorically critique abuses of power by the state. I further present how these sineh-zani’s critical sentiments are reworked into the secular Women, Life, Freedom protests through the reuse of their poetry and melodies in new forms of digital expression. This ethnographic research also provides insights into a process of the regime’s loss of legitimacy as a religious authority in community spaces, social settings, and economic classes that were traditionally strongholds of support.
  • In this paper, I argue that the eruption of women’s voices into public spaces in Iran’s 2022 “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement was preceded by several years of practices of counterpublicness (Michael Warner 2002, Nancy Fraser 2016) and counterpublicity (Stephanie R. Larson 2018) in online communal spaces that culminated in a full-fledged musical response. State security forces fought these online performances legally if they became too popular, such as in the case of the Māhbānu women’s ensemble directed by the composer Majid Derakhshani, and used different strategies to deter women singers from holding large “private” concerts, effectively denying them publicness. With the outbreak of protests, however, women have harnessed both the content as well as strategies of previous performances to reclaim their voices, both literally and figuratively. They have taken traditional song lyrics and swapped in “adolescent sister” for “brother,” reformulated old anti-imperialist tunes to voice women’s struggles, rapped verses that “whip clerics’ cloaks with hair,” and re-written the anthem of the Islamic Republic to hail its “champion girls.” Scholars have theorized about the voice as a locus of agency (see Parapart & Parashar 2019), and we witnessed a progression of agentive action within the musical sphere leading up to the events of September 2022. By discussing prominent woman-voiced songs of the movement, and their visual and performative presentations, I will trace the feminist transformation of the sonic and musical sphere that centers women in this revolutionary narrative.
  • While “conservative” political philosophy in Iran has often been read as closely aligned with the state’s ideological orientation, philosophers associated with the “critical rationalist school” (aql girai-i intiqadi), represent the regime’s most enduring and trenchant critics. An exemplary figure from this movement is the contemporary theologian and philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush (b. 1945). Soroush has famously critiqued Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of “Guardianship of the Jurisconsult” as epistemologically naïve and incompatible with a historical-critical reading of Islamic sacred sources. According to Heydar Shadi, Soroush’s early and mid-career writings are largely responsible for the “epistemic turn” in contemporary Iranian discourse. What has triggered strong reactions from conservative and traditionalist thinkers has been Soroush’s assertion that the Prophet Muhammad played a major role in shaping the form and content of the Qur’an—a stance which Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi has described as walking the line of heterodoxy and blasphemy in Muslim theological circles. More recently, Soroush’s Muhammad’s Word, Muhammad’s Dream (2018) adds new sophistication (as well as critical ambiguities) to Soroush’s “humanistic” account of prophecy. This paper constructs a genealogy of Soroush’s anti-establishment thinking on prophecy, Islamic governance, and political theory. In contending, in Muhammad’s Word, that many passages of the Qur’an are best understood as Muhammad’s historically situated accounts of dreams and visions (ru’ya), Soroush deepens his critique of the political and legal assumptions of the Islamic Republic’s constitutional foundation. In elucidating this dynamic, I juxtapose a decontextual view of the legal and regulatory content of the Qur’an—endorsed by many regime defenders—with Soroush’s historicizing project, which views all such scriptural passages as time-bound and subject to revision. Such a radical appraisal is made possible by Soroush’s invocation of “counterfactual” reasoning about the form and content of the Qur’anic text: if differing historical circumstances would have affected the cause (‘illa) behind a given Qur’anic injunction, then such legal content should not be seen as essential to the text. Moreover, in Muhammad’s Word, Soroush continues to press his fallibilism about religious knowledge, which undermines the Iranian regime’s claim to possess an “official reading” of the canonical sources of Islamic law and political theory. In sum, this paper constructs an overall trajectory of Soroush’s regime-critical scholarship and highlights the emphasis on prophecy as an animating force of Soroush’s most recent political-philosophical critiques.